Reformed realities

Presbyterians pride themselves on being realistic Christians. This is due to the Reformed emphasis that human nature is not perfect nor are human achievements self-sufficient. From a Reformed perspective, all cultural and scientific "advancements" are subject to theological scrutiny. What is sought is a reforming attitude toward the totality of life.

In the spirit of “always being reformed,” believers are challenged to question existing practices and innovations in the church and in society. Our freedom in Christ enables us to work for justice with love in a changing world. Our reforming stance also encourages us to be ecumenical in our outreach and concern for others.

Influenced by the Reformed tradition, Presbyterians take their work ethic seriously. Whatever our means of livelihood, our jobs and professions are viewed as a calling, a vocation before God who demands our best efforts. This attitude is at the center of Reformed understanding of stewardship. Influenced by Calvin’s teaching, we are expected to view life as a process of holy living, exhibiting self-denial and seeking always God’s will and destiny.

What characterizes a Reformed Christian in practice, is his or her unending passion for God’s will, while practicing responsible stewardship; the Ten Commandments serve as benchmarks to guide our behavior. Obviously, most Reformed Christians fall short of the mark. Presbyterian realism therefore sees our lives oscillating between forgiveness and thanksgiving. We are also encouraged to live a life of simplicity, to be savers and conservers of personal and natural resources.

Responsible stewardship for Reformed followers ultimately leads us to a life of gratitude and generosity; we are primarily thankful for divine forgiveness personified in Christ. Through a spirit of thanksgiving and sharing we give glory to God, grateful that there is a divine purpose for each of us, whatever our circumstances in life. In the deepest sense, we see ourselves as the People of God called to be chaplains to one another, whatever our particular gifts may be, looking always to the Spirit’s leading in the employment of our talents and resources.

While the historic development of the Reformed tradition is indebted to the Swiss Reformers, and especially to Calvin, no single definition of “Reformed” faith to this day has emerged to form a consensus. This is due in part to the tradition’s reforming stance reflected in our history of confession-making exemplified in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions. Calvinists (followers of the Swiss Reformers) became in time a Protestant alternative to Lutherans and Anabaptists. Common to all interpretations of “Reformed” faith is an underlying commitment to the Word, the sacraments and discipline.

Faithfulness to (1) the Word of God, (2) the sacraments and (3) discipline is the distinguishing mark for churches within the Reformed tradition. To anchor theological reflections in the Word of God (Scripture) is the cornerstone in the formulation of Reformed beliefs. The Bible continues to have an authoritative place in the shaping of Presbyterian reality today. This is witnessed in the present discussions and debates taking place in the life of the church.

The common ground for all followers within the Reformed tradition is the centrality of Christ — his life, death and resurrection offer salvation from our alienation from God and neighbor. This is the message behind the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist. Our participation in the sacraments of baptism and holy Communion expresses our acceptance of God’s healing power on our behalf. This is why the cross of Christ signifies hope at the center of our life together.

Reformed Christians do have their disagreements and unresolved issues. In the midst of our debates within our extended family, we need to recognize the fact that our tradition is not dead. A vital tradition embodies a conflict of interpretations. There is no absolute norm that satisfies all members of the Reformed family.

A healthy family does not press for uniformity at the expense of testing ideas and a range of views. A split on one issue may cause turmoil, but the family with many issues can find space for agreement and disagreement on varied concerns while staying bonded together in love, mutual forgiveness and hope, continuing to wish one another well in the journey of faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and by the grace of God seeking “always to be reformed.”

CARNEGIE SAMUEL CALIAN is president and professor of theology, Pittsburgh Seminary. His latest book is “Survival or Revival: Ten Keys to Church Vitality.”